As the Church leads us through the sixth chapter of the gospel of Saint John in these weeks, today we focus once more on the Most Holy Eucharist. Throughout the bread of life discourse the Lord delivers a rich catechesis on the nature of this sublime gift, the freely-given gift of himself, thereby nourishing our faith and strengthening our hope of heaven. As the reality of Christ’s presence in the Most Holy Eucharist and its centrality is revealed to us in the sacred scriptures, we now consider the intrinsic link between the Eucharistic oblation we make here in earth and the banquet prepared for those who are faithful in the kingdom of heaven.
For three weeks now the Sunday lections have centered around the Bread of Life discourse found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. This began with the miraculous feeding of the multitude near Bethsaida in Galilee, and continued with the Lord announcing himself as “the bread of life” by the lake of Capernaum. As we have seen, the Johannine description of these events is explicitly Eucharistic; the link between the feeding of the five thousand and Christ’s pronouncement point not simply to one who has come to provide natural, but supernatural sustenance. The timing of these events with the Jewish feast of Passover suggests this all the more keenly: the coming sacrifice of Calvary is to be understood alongside the Lord’s proclamation, “I am the bread of life.” Thus, in the Most Holy Eucharist we find both the action of the cross, re-presented for us on the altar, and the bread of life, who nourishes us and sustains us on our pilgrim way.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which we heard in the gospel last Sunday, fundamentally concerns the Most Holy Eucharist. The abundance of food given to those gathered with the Lord and his apostles near Bethsaida is a sign of the super-abundant and super-substantial gift of the Lord himself, his very own body and blood, given to us in Holy Communion. By this miracle—as by those which preceded it under the old testament—the Lord softens the heart of man to receive the true food, the bread of angels, the Most Holy Eucharist, which sustains us on our pilgrimage to heaven. By providing for the natural nourishment of those who have sought him out he shows how, by the fruits of his sacrificial love on the cross, he will provide also for the supernatural nourishment; that feeds the soul, and which gives his people the grace to become more and more like him.
Throughout history the Church has placed great emphasis on the importance of mystery in the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Jewish temple, from where many of our liturgical traditions come, we find the origins of this in the Holy of Holies—the hidden inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle into which the High Priest (and he alone) entered on the Day of Atonement. In the first centuries of Christianity it was usual that the altar would be covered by a canopy and surrounded by curtains, closed during the most solemn moments of the Mass. In the medieval period, the sanctuary of the church was divided from the nave by a screen adorned with images of the saints, something which is still found in the Eastern rites, where the great icon screen—the iconostasis—is a reminder of the sacred character of the action that takes place beyond. Even now, the Church instructs that the sanctuary “should be appropriately marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation” (GIRM 295). From her earliest days, then, the Church has consistently sought to assert that, in her public worship, there is always a sacred aspect which is unseen.